The shift to remote-only civic meetings during the pandemic is impacting how communities get to weigh in on important city proposals, like rezonings. It’s led to more people attending — but there have also been problems, and criticism.
The day before a virtual public meeting about the city’s proposed SoHo/NoHo rezoning, Sean Sweeney, the head of the Soho Alliance, got an email saying he needed to update his Zoom software. So he did. Sweeney was going to be one of the first panelists to share feedback at the meeting on the draft scope, a document detailing the city’s proposed land-use actions and outlining the methods it will use to study the project’s potential impacts.
But on the day of the Dec. 3 meeting, Sweeney was told by city officials that his Zoom software still needed to be updated. Confused, he logged out and made another unsuccessful attempt to join. After an hour passed and over a dozen people had already testified, he gave up, deciding to try and join the public hearing by phone instead—and by luck, was called on and given the chance to testify almost immediately.
“They said, ‘Oh, let’s pick someone from the phone.’ So I guess I was the first one to phone in and they arbitrarily picked someone who just phoned in. They didn’t know my name. They just knew the last three digits of my number,” he says. The good timing meant he got to speak at the virtual meeting before others who’d been waiting online to do so—one example of the many ways that the shift to remote-only civic meetings during the pandemic is impacting how communities get to weigh in on important city proposals.
“Someone who might’ve been waiting an hour on the computer, had they gone to the phone would have gone on instantly,” said Sweeney in an interview with City Limits. “So there is an inequity. If you’re sitting waiting to speak at an in-person public meeting and someone happens to come in the side door and they get pushed right up—that would never happen in a public meeting in a room.”
When the pandemic struck the city in March, Mayor Bill de Blasio issued an emergency order to halt the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), the city’s months-long review process for land use proposals like rezonings. The city restarted that process in October, but shifted to virtual public meetings, launching an online portal, NYC Engage, where people can find information and register to join meetings either virtually or by phone. Residents can also place requests in advance for language interpreters and other services.
There are two public rezoning proposals underway—Gowanus in Brooklyn and SoHo and NoHo in Manhattan—the first of which is expected to be certified, and start the ULURP process, in January (a certification date for SoHo/NoHo has not yet been finalized).* Public meetings relating to both projects have been held remotely in recent months to plan for that, and city officials say the online format has provided a boost to attendance numbers, with hundreds tuning in.
According to Department of City Planning data, the SoHo/NoHo scoping meeting on Dec. 3 saw over 150 attendees, while an information session about the proposal in October drew an estimated crowd of 500. More than 350 people logged into a meeting on the Gowanus rezoning proposal on Oct. 22, another 250 attended a November presentation about the city’s plans for Gowanus Green, and another meeting about the Brooklyn neighborhood’s infrastructure this month had an estimated 200 people watching. The City Planning Commission (CPC) hearing on the Special Flushing Waterfront District on Nov. 4 saw more than 230 people register to testify.
Attendance outnumbered those of in-person public meetings held last year related to these and other rezoning proposals, officials say: two workshops about plans for SoHo/NoHo, hosted in February and May 2019, had 150 and 200 attendees respectively, while meetings related to the Gowanus proposal also averaged between 150 to 200 attendees last year. In February, right before the pandemic struck, a CPC hearing on the now-dead Industry City rezoning proposal had just 57 people registered to testify.
According to DCP, the virtual platform for public meetings has been successful in engaging more people than in-person meetings would otherwise, and the agency says it is looking to make more improvements to the format in the near future.
But some residents and stakeholders have taken issue with the use of virtual-only meetings, saying it’s inaccessible for those who lack access to internet services. Others feel it can create issues around fairness when it comes to who gets to speak, and when, such as in Sweeney’s example. Residents also say that not being able to see their fellow community members and know who is tuning into such meetings makes organizing—either in support of a project or policy or against it—more difficult.
NYCHA resident and community activist Karen Blondel, who works with the Gowanus Neighborhood Justice Coalition (GNJC), raised that last issue at a recent Gowanus rezoning-related meeting, where she said she had no idea if other NYCHA residents were tuned into the city’s presentation on its proposal, which could impact Gowanus’s public housing residents significantly.
“I felt alone as a community. I could not see GNJC members or NYCHA residents. We spent a lot of time in person understanding the community’s approvals and disapprovals in past meetings. That was missing,” Blondel said. “We should not do ULURP until we can meet in person.”
She added that if the city continues with virtual meetings, then it should publish a participant list for each event so attendees can know who else is present. “To make sure that the people there are not trolls, coming from other spaces and have 15 to 20 of their members speak. And then nobody from the community gets to speak,” she says. “Even on Zoom, there’s no way to determine the order of who raised their hand first or asked to speak. So it can be biased based on the host.”
Blondel thinks the city should continue doing outreach online but wait until the spring to hold actual public meetings, when communities can meet in-person outdoors in better weather conditions. A Manhattan community group, Village Preservation, offers a similar idea: to pause the ULURP process until there is an opportunity to have in-person (with social distancing) and virtual public meetings, simultaneously.
“Without a doubt, I think that there are certain advantages to having the virtual format and my hope would be that in the future one would be able to participate both virtually and in person. But there’s also no denying that there’s a loss, a significant loss from the lack of in-person participation, particularly in terms of the way that the city structures these, which is that you can’t see anybody who the city doesn’t allow you to see. You’re basically in a black box,” said Andrew Berman, the group’s executive director.
Virtual meetings also make it harder to get a general sense of a community’s support or opposition to a proposal which are easy to convey in person, such as attendees holding signs or wearing buttons, he added.
“There’s no way for people who are in attendance to disseminate information among one another. So it really is extremely limiting,” he says. Such participation is vital for high-stakes land use projects. “The fact of the matter is with something like a vast proposed rezoning for two communities, there’s no reason why it can’t wait until we’re able to return to an in-person format, which hopefully would also allow for virtual participation.”
With a vaccine potentially around the corner, it makes sense for the city to hit pause on ULURP until it’s safe again to convene in person, these critics argue.
“I think that there’s a real feeling right now that certain political powers are taking advantage of the pandemic to streamline public review processes. And I think at the root of it, I think there’s real concern that these technical platforms are not designed to be a democratic forum and they are not designed to in such a way that they are accessible to all. And there is this assumption that this process is somehow equivalent or good enough because of the pandemic,” says Jack Riccobono, a member of the community group Voice of Gowanus.
“When you’re talking about a discretionary action like ULURP and the rezoning process, which has a time horizon of 10 to 20 years and are often under consideration for years before action is taken–it’s really hard to make the argument that this has to happen right now,” he adds.
DCP counters that the virtual meetings have been critical for those who would otherwise be unable to join in-person public meetings due to work schedules, family commitments or accessibility difficulties. The agency says it also works with attendees to help them participate both before and during remote meetings.
There have indeed been moments during recent online meetings that shed light on the flexibility of a virtual platform: A union member who had his daughter help him make his video testimony in support of the Gowanus rezoning in the middle of running an errand, or the Soho senior who moved upstate during the pandemic for her own safety who was still able to share feedback on the SoHo and NoHo proposals.
“Neighborhood planning is more important than ever as we think about recovery. This is a moment in time where we need to make a centralized place to find information on meetings,” says Lara Merida, DCP Director of Neighborhood Studies. The city’s Engage NYC portal does just that, she says, letting residents view upcoming meetings, watch past events and access documents related to each project.
Merida said the platform has also helped the agency itself, allowing flexibility for DCP employees to attend more meetings in different parts of the city. She said the website was in the works even before the pandemic, but the health crisis jump started its launch.
Like all technology, there are limitations, Merida admits. But the city is continuously working to improve: The public can expect to see video conferencing tools soon which will allow meeting attendees to see each other, she says, though did not give an exact timeline for when that will happen. She highlighted other existing features of the virtual format, like the chat function, which provides a space for public discourse during meetings.
“We’re constantly speaking to members of the public and sister agencies, advocacy groups, and educational institutions to try to improve all of the civic engagement that we’re doing online,” she says.
*A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the ULURP process for the SoHo/NoHo rezoning proposal would start in January. An exact start date has not been set yet. The story has been updated.